Are freelance PR practitioners merely a useful stopgap to make up staff numbers in times of need? Or do they provide agencies with specialist skills and knowledge which would otherwise be missing?
Anecdotal evidence suggests the latter is becoming more common. But getting a big agency boss to admit that he/she needs to call in outside expertise is still, it appears, tantamount to admitting that their own services are not up to scratch.
Should the industry view freelance help in this way?
Obviously those on the supply side think not. 'People are doing it more and more,' says Emma Brierley, joint-partner at freelance PR provider PRxchange. 'It's a good way to maximise expertise that already exists.'
'Everybody can't be good at everything,' reasons Gavin White, S.PUNK managing director. His agency is part of Groop, a creative collective offering a range of communication services. Earlier this year, sister agency Cunning Stunts helped launch Levi Strauss 3-D Engineered Jeans by hanging the product from washing lines across high streets around the country. Exposure Promotions, which handled the launch, decided that rather than deal with the publicity surrounding the stunt itself, it would hire S.PUNK on the specialist brief.
This outsourcing of specialist PR activity is something that White thinks will increase over the next couple of years. 'It's an avenue that we certainly see as a trend,' he says.
However, persuading top 50 agencies to confirm they use outside help is an altogether different matter. White's agency has worked with other PR partners including some 'big ones' - on regional and radio specific youth targeted programmes - but confidentiality prevents him from naming names.
So what exactly is some PR folk's problem with holding their hands up and saying: 'We can't do this, but we know a man who can?'. For the large multi-national full-service PR agencies, the concern is that clients will conclude that the big boys are simply not up to the job.
But if a deadline is looming or an account team recommends a project, part of which is outside their current skill-set, then surely it makes sense to bring that expertise in-house, in the most timely and cost-effective manner possible. 'It's an obvious thing to do, if you've not got those skills in-house or someone's left the company,' says Tariq Khwaja, August.One managing director. 'It seems like a no-brainer to bring in a freelance when you need some temporary cover.'
Smaller PR players, however, have concerns about using seconded manpower to provide specialist input. 'If a freelance gets something wrong, I've paid him his daily rate - which can be expensive - he's off and I'm left with a problem outside my area of expertise,' says Lawrence Dore, joint managing director at new economy PR operator Mantra. Like many specialist agencies, Mantra prefers to forge informal arrangements with other niche players, whose skills are complementary but non-threatening.
The key, it seems, is to know exactly who you are taking on and keeping a weather-eye on how they perform. 'If you choose carefully in the first place, and monitor closely in the early stages, then there shouldn't be a problem,' says Carol Barbone, director of Essex-based agency MXC. Having recently taken time out on maternity leave, Barbone was herself temporarily replaced by a freelance on a three month contract.
With a DTi campaign 'IT for All' in full-swing and a chemicals client looking to set up a lobbying programme, MXC brought in Ian Buckland, a former practising environmentalist. 'He had impeccable references,' says Barbone, 'and relevant experience of the sector and the agency environment.'
Significantly, she states that bringing in temporary outside help raised no eyebrows with clients.
While PRxchange acknowledges a trend for hiring temporary specialists, others running freelance services for the PR industry do not agree. 'Our experience is that people are looking to secondment for tactical needs, not strategic needs,' says Christiane Morris, The Counsel House partner.
She concedes that some agencies do hire freelances to help out on pitching briefs, but maintains that most contracts are for sickness and maternity cover or to plug short-term gaps.
This theory is borne out by others in the PR industry, who maintain that freelances are generally used for overspill or to make up numbers when business goes through a sudden peak.
However, PRxchange partner Alison Starbuck believes that the PR world could learn a few lessons from the advertising industry, by dividing teams by competency and giving account managers the responsibility for overall co-ordination and control.
'Few PR agencies have recognised how they could benefit from similar structures, drafting in freelance specialist experience and skills to complement the team as necessary,' she says.
It seems that in times of stress, everybody looks to hire in temporary help. But the bigger question is how far PR agencies are willing to admit that they can't always meet a wide-ranging programme. After all, if the client and the agency are both winners, who cares how results are achieved?
And as Brierley says: 'Using freelances is nothing to be ashamed of.'